Russell storms through to seal victory in Virtual São Paulo Grand Prix

We’ve had races at the Red Bull Ring, Silverstone and finally to close off this three-race mini championship, it’s the Interlagos circuit which has delivered many exciting races over the years and is a firm favourite of drivers and fans alike.

With the $100,000 prize pot being distributed among the competing teams for a charity of their choosing, Mercedes made their return after electing to miss the previous race at Silverstone. So it was nine of the ten teams taking part as Aston Martin did not compete in any of the events.

The following is what the line-ups looked like with the drivers competing in the 50% distance feature race listed with their F1 Esports counterpart racing for their grid positions listed next to them in brackets.

Jake Dixon (Jarno Opmeer)
Rohan Dennis (Dani Moreno)

Red Bull
Alex Albon (Marcel Kiefer)
Johannes Hountondji (Frederik Rasmussen)

Nic Hamilton (James Baldwin)
Jimmy Broadbent (Josh Idowu)

Arnaud Tsamere (Nicolas Longuet)
Nicolas Prost (Fabrizio Donoso)

Arthur Leclerc (Brendon Leigh)
Dino Beganovic (David Tonizza)

Luca Salvadori (Joni Törmälä)
Vitantonio Liuzzi (Manuel Biancolilla)

Alfa Romeo
Thibaut Courtois (Dani Bereznay)
Jack ‘PieFace’ McDermott (Simon Weigang)

Pietro Fittipaldi (Nolan Lambert)
Enzo Fittipaldi (Cedric Thomé)

George Russell (Álvaro Carretón)
Alejandro ‘Flowstreet’ Pérez (Alessio Di Capua)

In the one-shot qualifying that took place before the sprint race, Alpine’s Nicolas Longuet earned pole position like he did when he qualified for the official F1 Esports series race at Interlagos back at the end of the season in December. He was hoping to earn that place for comedian and actor Arnaud Tsamere.

He would have an uphill task however as the two Ferrari drivers Brendon Leigh and David Tonizza – who had both won the other two sprint races each – were starting right behind him on the grid.

As the sprint race began, Longuet got off the line well and held position ahead of Leigh, but their teammates Fabrizio Donoso and Tonizza got into a scuffle going through the Senna S where the Alpine driver held his own round the outside and even chopped in front of Tonizza going around Curva do Sol.

For the first few laps, the Esports drivers were being well behaved. They all held position up at the front, but there was a sense of inevitability that Leigh was sizing up a move on Longuet to try and make it pole position for Arthur Leclerc.

Five laps around Interlagos don’t take very long and finally going onto lap three, DRS was enabled. Lap four and heading onto the back straight towards Descida do Lago, Leigh now had DRS but couldn’t get close to Longuet.

F1 Esports runner-up for the last two seasons Frederik Rasmussen’s torrid luck in the Virtual Grand Prix sprint races continued as he came into the pits, perhaps from getting into contact and breaking off a chunk of his front wing. He also had a track extending penalty and a pit-lane speeding penalty to rub salt in the wound.

Also having a bad day was Álvaro Carretón, who was attempting to get as high a grid position as possible for George Russell but was well outside of the top 10. To make matters worse, he had a track extending penalty to further drop him down the order by the end.

Back at the front heading onto the last lap, Leigh had an immense run on Longuet heading to the first corner but couldn’t make it stick. He attempted another move heading onto the second DRS zone but again, the Alpine racer held his nerve and it was a straight run to the end. Longuet held off the advancements of Leigh ahead of Donoso and Tonizza.

So for the 36 lap feature race, it would be Tsamere, Leclerc, Prost, Beganovic, Flowstreet, Albon, Hamilton, Salvadori, Dennis and Enzo Fittipaldi. George Russell, though, in his efforts to get six Virtual Grand Prix wins in a row would face a monumental task as he would start 15th.

But drama just before the race began, Nico Prost disconnected from the lobby and couldn’t rejoin for the start. As a result, everyone behind him on the grid moved up a position.

Going into the main race, the lights went out and Tsamere didn’t get as good a start as Arthur Leclerc, and the Ferrari driver out-dragged the Alpine. But then chaos ensued. Flowstreet smacked into the rear of Leclerc, who collected Tsamere and then Nic Hamilton collided with Alex Albon and went round too. Pretty much the entire field crowded around the outside of the Senna S and got caught up in the madness, but one of the ones that did not was George Russell.

Despite starting 14th on the grid, the Williams driver avoided the pile-up and was now in third! He found himself only behind race leader Dino Beganovic and pole-sitter Tsamere – who had taken to the run-off to avoid the chaos both ahead of him – by some absolute miracle.

Going onto lap two, Russell passed Tsamere and set off after the Ferrari Academy driver. Haas’ Enzo Fittipaldi had also benefitted from the first lap melee to go from tenth to fourth, and behind him was Petronas Moto2 rider Jake Dixon and then Alex Albon.

Russell had elected to start on soft tyres whilst the rest of front runners had gone for mediums, leading him to voice concerns that he was on the wrong strategy.

Lap two and Enzo Fittipaldi muscled his way past Arnaud Tsamere when he tagged his rear going into turn eight and was up to third. Then up at the front, heading to turn one Russell made the overtake on Beganovic and was into the lead.

Russell’s close friend Albon was behind Jake Dixon and in a role reversal of F1’s last visit to Interlagos, Albon put his Red Bull in a position to pass the Mercedes into Bico de Pato – the same corner where Lewis Hamilton attempted to pass Albon in the 2019 Grand Prix but collided and spun him round, but this time round. Albon succeeded where Hamilton failed and made his way past the 2018 British Superbike runner-up.

It wasn’t long before both Albon and Dixon also dispatched of Tsamere ahead of them. Up the road, Beganovic was now under pressure from Enzo Fittipaldi, who if Russell won the race would only need second place to be the defacto champion if points for drivers were counted. The Haas driver used the DRS and was up to P2.

The other Ferrari of Arthur Leclerc was in a lowly P7 after the first lap chaos and had a bit of a squirrel moment coming out of turn two. He had just passed the Alfa Romeo of PieFace who then tried to mount a repass heading to turn four, but the Prema F3 driver just held off the FIFA YouTuber. Later on in the lap, PieFace was passed by the other Fittipaldi: Pietro.

Fittipaldi then attempted a move on Leclerc heading into turn four on lap 12, but was on the outside and Leclerc moved over to the racing line where the Haas was and knocked him off the track

After being stuck behind Beganovic who was benefitting from getting DRS behind Enzo Fittipaldi for many laps, Alex Albon could now attack the Swedish youngster as he had fallen outside that crucial one second window.

Heading onto lap 14 into turn one, Albon went to the outside and they remained side by side through the Senna S and Curva do Sol. Getting DRS on the back straight heading to turn four, Albon looked to have pulled it off, but Beganovic didn’t back off and subsequently knocked Albon off the road, running wide himself.

The first to pit was McLaren’s Jimmy Broadbent heading onto lap 15. He had been in an on-track battle with PieFace and went to get rid of his softs in an attempt to undercut the Alfa Romeo driver. However his efforts were made all the more difficult when he rejoined just behind Flowstreet and Johannes Hountondji.

Back with the battle between Albon and Beganovic, Albon was again seizing up a maneuver on Beganovic and at the same corner that the Ferrari driver had smacked him off the road the lap before. Albon tried around the outside but to no avail and slotted in back behind Beganovic. But not long after that, with the help of DRS towards turn one, finally Albon had dispatched of Beganovic who then went round the outside of turn four on the Red Bull, but Albon muscled him out of the way and was finally into third.

At the end of lap 17, George Russell pulled the pin and pitted for mediums. He only just rejoined ahead of Leclerc, having had a gap of about 6.5 seconds to Enzo Fittipaldi, and he didn’t want to take a chance on being held up behind the Ferrari.

The next lap saw Fittipaldi pit for softs and once the rest of the front runners pitted, Russell made quick work of Mercedes’ Jake Dixon who had elected to extend his stint and got back into the lead. Enzo Fittipaldi, despite being on the grippier compound, had dropped to over seven seconds back, and wasn’t making the inroads on Russell he needed.

10 laps to go and at the tail end of the points, PieFace was holding off the advances of motorcycle racer Luca Salvadori after being passed by Jimmy Broadbent a few laps earlier. PieFace was using his controller whilst the remainder of the field were all using the top-line sim racing wheels.

A few laps later, Salvadori used the DRS to good effect into turn one and thought he could make the move stick but PieFace held it around the outside which became the inside for turn two. But heading to turn four, Salvadori passed PieFace without any issue to get into the last points-paying position.

PieFace attempted to mount a challenge to repass Salvadori but the following lap coming out of turn three, he spun around and any hopes of scoring points for Alfa Romeo ended right there and then. His teammate Thibaut Courtois – who had just played in Real Madrid’s 2-0 win over Valencia just an hour before he got home to race – wasn’t in the points either. With McLaren scoring two points with Jimmy Broadbent, Alfa were set to finish bottom of the teams’ tally.

Mercedes’ Jake Dixon and Ferrari’s Arthur Leclerc resumed the battling they had been doing earlier and were exchanging places very frequently. Heading onto lap 31 Dixon went on the inside of Leclerc into turn one and Leclerc cut across the run-off.

He had a better run going onto the back straight and Dixon put up a robust defense on Leclerc but to no avail as on the run up to Ferradura, the Ferrari Academy driver made the move stick. Dixon was eager to get back through and in his haste, spun the car with just over two laps to go coming out of turn 10. However, he rejoined well ahead of Tsamere behind him.

Speaking of the French comedian, he was now under pressure from Jimmy Broadbent who had amassed one more penalty than Tsamere and, with only a few laps left to run, it was unlikely he would actually be able to be classified ahead. Nevertheless he attempted a move into turn one but thought better of it, before easily making the pass on the run to turn four.

But it was an emphatic George Russell who wrapped up his sixth consecutive Virtual Grand Prix victory and it never looked in doubt immediately after lap one, and he even took home the point for fastest lap as well in the process. Enzo Fittipaldi was second, and as a result was the defacto Virtual Grand Prix champion after winning the first round at the Red Bull Ring.

They were joined on the podium by Alex Albon, who had gapped Dino Beganovic hugely after their earlier scrap. Pietro Fittipaldi was fifth ahead of Arthur Leclerc, Jake Dixon, Arnaud Tsamere, Jimmy Broadbent and Luca Salvadori rounded off the points in tenth.

The consistency of the Fittipaldi brothers meant that Haas scored the most points with 85 across this three-race championship and would take $20,000 of the $100,000 prize pot for their charity of choice. Their charity is the Grand Prix Trust, a foundation set up to help fund the costs of former F1 behind-the-scenes workers to help cover medical expenses, bereavement costs, and other things they may need financial support with.

Second with 62 points were Ferrari who, along with last-placed Alfa Romeo, are donating their portions of the $100,000 to Save The Children – a charity which looks to give children the support they need in life, whether it be in everyday life, or extreme times of crisis or hardship.

Williams got third with 57 points and their charity of choice is rather fittingly the Spinal Injury Association, since the founder of the team Sir Frank Williams suffered a spinal injury and as a result is confined to a wheelchair. The SIA helped out the Williams family when Sir Frank had his traffic collision in the 80’s and, despite no longer being involved with the running of the team now, it is still holds a place in the heart of the Williams team.

Red Bull were fourth with 54 points and Alpha Tauri joint seventh with McLaren with four points. The chosen charity for Red Bull and its junior team is Wings For Life, the charity founded by Red Bull founder Dietrich Mateschitz. The non-profit organisation has been seen in F1 before with special liveries on the Red Bull team’s cars, and funds vital medical research in the area of spinal cord injuries and paraplegia, with a goal of ultimately finding a cure for spinal cord injuries.

Next up is Mercedes who got fifth on 28 points, and their chosen charity is Alzheimer’s Research UK, which provides the crucial funds to research the cure for a leading cause of dementia – a progressive disease which causes memory loss, and impairs thinking skills.

Alpine ended up sixth on 10 points, and they partnered up with Talent Tap, an organisation that aims to assist qualified people who have struggled to find a job in their chosen field. And it is a two-way street, affording employees a fresh cohort of talented and determined people ready to hit the ground running.

Finally, last but not least is McLaren, who tied for seventh with AlphaTauri on four points and their chosen charity is Mind. After working with them closely last year on content attempting to normalise discussion around Mental Health, especially during these trying times when everyone feels isolated due to how severe the mental effects of the COVID-19 pandemic has been.

So that has been it! The three-race Virtual Grand Prix season is at an end and it has been some light entertainment for us all whilst we are waiting for the real F1 season to get up and running. Hopefully we will see it back this time next year.

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